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Does Destruction Mean Annihilation?

The Bible says that the wicked will be “destroyed.” In Matthew 10:28 Jesus said: “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” Does this deny eternal punishment?

No, it doesn’t, although it is often used as an argument against eternal punishment. Supposedly, it supports the doctrine of eternal annihilation. Some people also understand John 3:16 as teaching annihilation. It says that those who believe in Jesus “should not perish, but have everlasting life.” They claim this means that if you don’t trust Jesus you will “perish,” or cease to exist.

It’s always very dangerous to give a word a meaning that man attaches to it. The meaning of a word must be discovered from the word itself, and from how it is used. So, what do the words “destruction” and “perish” mean?

In Matthew 10:28 the verb “to destroy” is the same word that is used in Matthew 9:17 where Jesus speaks about the wineskins perishing. He says, “Neither do men put new wine into old bottles: else the bottles break, and the wine runneth out, and the bottles perish.” The old wineskins are ruined, but they are not annihilated. They do not cease to exist. Clearly, the word “perish,” or “destroy” does not mean annihilation.

In fact, the same verb is used in the parables of Luke 15 where Jesus speaks of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. In Luke 15:24 we read: “For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” In none of these Scriptures does the verb ever have the meaning of annihilation. The sheep was lost, but it was not annihilated. The coin was lost, but it was not annihilated. The son was lost, but he was not annihilated. Words like “destroy” and “perish” mean “ruined” and “not fit for its original purpose.”

What about 2 Thessalonians 1:9 where we read that the wicked “shall be punished with everlasting destruction”?

In the Bible, ultimate death—spiritual death—is never a cessation of existence. Rather, it is separation from God. God warned Adam concerning the penalty for eating the forbidden fruit and said, “for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Genesis 2:17). When Adam ate the forbidden fruit he “died”—not in the sense that his heart stopped and he fell over dead, nor in the sense that he disappeared like a phantom wisp of smoke. Adam was separated from God. Second Thessalonians 1:9 is in perfect agreement with this. Unrepentant sinners will be separated “from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power.”

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